In recent years, Hollywood as an industry has lined up a convoy of culturally phenomenal films. Although some fall victim to whitewashing or even a forced diversification of whiteness, others offer a mostly accurate portrayal of the explored ethnic groups. One factor that plays into that accuracy is ensuring the story’s heritage is reflected in the cast. Marvel’s “Black Panther” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” do this flawlessly. The latter comprises a predominantly Asian and Asian American cast while the former flourishes with both Black actors and actors from African countries.
Each of these Marvel releases holds significance in their representation and storytelling. Their similarities emphasize the impact of acknowledging the voices a narrative is told through and the content that is woven in. T’Challa and Shang-Chi are characters whose shared qualities not only embody heroism but also feature an empire of necessity when considering specific details.
Wakanda and Ta-Lo
The kingdom of Wakanda and the realm of Ta-Lo are true cinematic works of art. Each inculcates a certain essence of the ethnic communities they pay tribute to.
When Wakanda isn’t disguised as an arid, desolate nation undergoing poverty and famine, its lush landscapes and highly advanced architecture make it a breathtaking sight to behold. Wakanda draws many of its influences from existing African nations. It is a country saturated with tribal hues and global leading technology, situated somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. Its people, though divided into five tribes, speak in the same native tongue of IsiXhosa, an official language spoken in South Africa. Wakanda’s homage to the continent is both an ode to the African experience and a praise for the beauty within it.
Similarly, Ta-Lo, a village concealed by a perpetually moving woodland maze, is located in a barely accessible dimension. Ta-Lo is shielded by an infinitely mobile jungle that prevents intruders from entering. Those who are able to outrun the forest labyrinth and avoid getting swallowed whole may behold the mystical land; there is an ambivalence to Ta-Lo as one would not expect to be greeted with such serene scenery and tranquil terrains after escaping certain death by the skin of their teeth. The people of Ta-Lo also speak Mandarin as their language and lead a way of life absorbed in Chinese mythology and traditions.
Vibranium and The Ten Rings
With great power comes great responsibility, and both T’Challa and Shang-Chi are possessors of a whole boatload of it. Truly, it’s what one would expect when endowed with a legacy far greater than anything they could possibly imagine.
The power source of the Black Panther lies in heart-shaped herbs infused with vibranium, a fictitious metal native only to the Kingdom of Wakanda. These herbs were bestowed upon the African continent by a large meteorite that struck Wakanda long before the kingdom was formed. T’Challa, son of King T’Chaka, comes from a long lineage of Wakandan rulers and was given the power of the Black Panther as his birthright. With it, he possesses superhuman strength, speed and instincts as well as full political control of the kingdom.
The source of power for the Ten Rings appears inconclusive in the film, and even the comics might not provide a trustworthy answer. While the movie finds its origins in multiple myths and historical lore, the comics identify the original purpose of the Ten Rings as batteries for a Makluan alien spaceship. As a master of martial arts and son of Xu Wenwu, aka The Mandarin, Shang-Chi’s rigorous upbringing equipped him with adept fighting skills, shaping him into a one-man army. Although he is hard to beat all on his own, his abilities are amplified by the Ten Rings when wielded in combat.
Princess Shuri and Xu Xialing
Shuri is the innovative president of the Wakanda Design Group and is the brains behind Wakanda’s most formidable nanotech devices. Aside from being brilliant and absolutely remarkable, she’s hilarious, too. If she isn’t directing tech development, she’s probably poking fun at her brother. When she’s not busy being the exceptional princess we should all aspire to be, she’s proving why she is the smartest individual in the MCU.
Equally, Xialing literally exudes female supremacy. She dominates as a self-taught martial artist as well as a self-empowered entrepreneur. After being excluded from training sessions by her father because of her gender, she learned to fight through observation. At the age of 16, she left her father’s territory and started an underground fighting ring in Macau, which she actively ran and participated in before taking over as the leader of the Ten Rings organization. It is also worth noting that she subdues every opponent in combat — Shang-Chi not excluded.
War Within Family
A recurring theme in both T’Challa’s and Shang-Chi’s lives is that of familial feuds.
One of T’Challa’s hardest trials was clashing with his cousin Erik Killmonger, aka N’Jadaka, for his kingdom and the power of the Black Panther. Killmonger was out for revenge because King T’Chaka left his father dead with panther claws in his chest. His penchant for vengeance led him to a battle to the death with T’Challa. This left T’Challa with the ominous burden of knowing he’d taken the life of his own blood.
Likewise, Shang-Chi’s mother lost her life to the ruthlessness of Wenwu’s nemeses. This led Wenwu to give Shang-Chi the task of avenging his mother’s death. Shang-Chi’s years of training and preparation were for the day he’d terminate the perpetrators. He fulfilled the assignment at age 14.
Let’s just say that their fathers really messed them up. T’Challa had to pay for the mistakes of his father by taking the life of his cousin, and Shang-Chi’s father literally raised him to be a merciless assassin. They could have done better. Seriously.
What’s Left Behind
T’Challa and Shang-Chi are powerful figures in the MCU who bring more to the table than spectacle and intended inclusivity. The two have more in common besides ethnically punctuated names and saving the world from disaster a good number of times. Their presence in on-screen Marvel projects and growing relevance proves how the absence of white voices in culturally inclined film characters can be a favorite for audiences. And we all know that having no white characters to speak of in a narrative makes it one to remember. Every interested individual who sees themselves in the heroic feats of T’Challa and Shang-Chi can rest assured that more is coming. Theirs isn’t a tale that’s told once.